"Two trains leave from the same city at the same time in the same direction. One, going 90 mph, reaches Chicago in 22 hours. How long does the other one, going 100 mph, take?" "I don't have enough information." "Correct. The missing variable is the distance. Congratulations."
I recently saw the above exchange on "VIP," where the question was supposed to be testing the intelligence of a character. Now, I realize that not everyone remembers the formula distance = speed * time, but you would assume that someone using the question to test intelligence would. It really is too sad when a fictional intelligence test reveals that the writers know nothing about math or science. By the way, the faster train took 19.8 hours to get to Chicago.
Now, this may seem like a nitpick to some, and anal retentiveness to others, but for many of us, a story is hard to enjoy when the science, math, or history in the story, often the concept which is supposed to be driving the plot, is full of errors. I'm not talking about the kind of error made when a Star Trek episode refers to some unverifiable phenomenon as the basis for their latest trick, or even the famous one in Star Wars, where an obscure measure of distance (parsecs) are used as a measure of time ("This baby made the Kessel run in 12 parsecs"). I'm referring to blatant errors that show that the author made up math or science without checking their facts. What bothers me about it is not that they get it wrong. It's that they get it wrong when it would be so easy to get it right without destroying the plot element they were going for.
It boggles my mind when I hear how much money goes into the average Hollywood blockbuster, and then I go watch it and find errors that a simple bit of fact-checking could have found. For example, a friend of mine at the University of Chicago showed the producers of Chain Reaction around the lab machine shops where he worked. They told him some of the plot elements of their movie, and he told them that the average high school student would laugh at them. Even after he gave them some help (for which he got a cameo and billing as "technical advisor"), he told me that their science was so full of holes that anyone with any notion of physics would be shocked. He was right. They hadn't had the script checked for plausibility, and it wasn't until someone overheard their plot line during the production phase of the movie that they got the idea that something was wrong.
For another example, take any Star Trek episode where the holodeck malfunctions. This happens many times, and each time it happens I ask myself if any of these people have ever used a computer. If your computer started suddenly malfunctioning in a dangerous way, what would you do? Turn it off, of course. "Can't Captain, the holodeck has locked us out." Ever heard of pulling the plug? Most things do not function well without power, so I've been told. Remember that over a million dollars are spent on each show, but they apparently can't spare a couple of thousand for a technical consultant to go over the script and say, "This is not plausible, that's not possible, and this thing just plain doesn't make any sense at all."
Computers are one of the biggest bugaboos of Hollywood. I've seen everything from deleting a file on your computer causing it to be deleted from another, to instant transfer of information that would take days using the connection shown, to computers being remotely "hacked into" when they aren't connected to any network, or in some cases not even on at the time. In regards to computer security and cryptography, there is always the old chestnut that a code key will be narrowed down one digit at a time, when in reality, unless you are dealing with a mechanical lock, a code-key is either correct or not, and often one can only tell only looking at the decoded information which it is.
Of course, none of these is as embarrassing as my favorite scientific misconception: that changing your DNA causes an immediate (or fairly rapid) transformation, including of cells that normally don't regenerate, such as brain tissue. This is a common mistake that appears repeatedly, including The Relic, Eddie Murphy's remake of The Nutty Professor, and several times in the various Star Trek series (e.g. "Barclay's Protomorphosis Disease").
There are at least three factors that perpetuate scientific inaccuracy in visual media. The first is that the average person in the entertainment industry is very specialized. They don't have the background that a lot of their readers and viewers have, so they often have no idea that the central concept behind their plot device or surprising twist is completely laughable. A second problem is that often, even if the writers know better, they sacrifice accuracy for flash. They know that noise doesn't travel in space, but it'd be pretty uncool to have Klingon ships exploding silently. The third problem is that even if they knew, the lack of respect for their viewership causes them not to care. Maybe they are right. All too often, I hear "It's just a movie, let it go." I can't. It bothers me so much that a fine production is marred by an error which could have been fixed without significantly altering the production, and without much cost.
Fortunately, some movies are produced with reasonably correct facts. According to The Smithsonian, the producers of The Patriot had some of their revolutionary war experts on hand to help them create an authentic feel. Although some incorrect elements, such as certain British units not wearing their historical green uniforms, were left in for viewability purposes, overall the picture took pains to be accurate. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. Generally, I see entertainment made without regard to fact, history, or science.
Until all script writers have multiple Ph.D.s, however, I'll just have to be content to rage at my television screen: "You idiots! You can't just plug in one type of computer to any other type of computer and expect them to communicate! And just where did you find a serial port on an alien mothership?"
Paul R. F. Schumacher is Treasurer and Copy Editor for Strange Horizons.